Nigeria’s Iyinoluwa Aboyeji talks about the future of African start-ups

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Tuesday, 5 July 2022 18:53, updated on Thursday, 7 July 2022 18:04

A man poses as he displays the Flutterwave homepage on a mobile phone screen in Abuja, Nigeria January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Harassed by the police, criticised by the government but revered by the youth, Nigeria's successful young 'techtrepreneurs' have captured the national spotlight in recent years. In a wide-ranging conversation with The Africa Report just before hopping on a plane, one of the most popular, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, revealed why he doesn't recognize the 'tech bro' label that's often ascribed to him and shared in detail his hopes for Africa's future.

Rather than racing for fast profits, Aboyeji describes himself as an ‘entrepreneur in the public interest’. Co-founder of New York-based $1.5b job placement company Andela, and former managing director of unicorn payments company Flutterwave, Aboyeji was named one of the top 100 most influential Africans by the New African magazine in 2019.

Dangote, Otedola, Aboyeji?

Compared to Nigeria’s traditional business tycoons, Aboyeji is a relatively young 31 years old.

Asked whether he sees himself in the same category as business magnates such as Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola,  Aboyeji says he believes that “the older guys will do better – they have the benefit of experience and time. Wealth that is honest and sustainable is not made in one day.”

“Also, I think there have been windfall moments in our society,” he adds. “Dangote and Otedola made money at a time when the government was very encouraging of business. It was in the 2000s when Nigeria was moving away from the military era when the government controlled a lot of the economy, so they sold government assets to private businessmen.”

Today’s youth, Aboyeji says, have seen “no such windfall in our time.”

Aboyeji moved back to Nigeria in 2013 after studies in Canada. Since then, he says, Nigeria’s youth have come of age forged by a series of crises.

“In 2014, there was the Ebola crisis. In 2016 there was the currency crisis. In 2018, we dealt with another financial crisis and there was no investment. In 2020, there was Covid-19,” he says.  “Young, successful Nigerians have built their companies up through multiple different repressions. This shows the resilience of this generation.”

The label ‘tech bro’ has become an umbrella term for young male entrepreneurs mostly in the fintech sector, and Aboyeji is a household name in this category. However, he does not consider himself one of them.

“I don’t code, I just understand business,” he explains. “I think the technology sector is far more inclusive than just being a tech bro.”

Oversaturation

Just like he sees room for different job descriptions and personality types in the tech sector, Aboyeji disagrees with the growing belief that the startup market in Nigeria is becoming overheated due to the sheer number of new companies.

He acknowledges that “there are many problems in the economy and there are a lot of problems to fix.” Still, he adds, “the truth is we live in a country of 200 million people on a continent with 1.3 billion people. We are going to make up more than half of the world’s working population in 20 years. On a continent with limited infrastructure and no real ‘old money’, the way that people will engage with services is through tech. The only thing that connects people is mobile phones, so tech is inevitable in reality.”

On a continent with limited infrastructure and no real ‘old money’, the way that people will engage with services is through tech.

Aboyeji’s investment company, Future Africa, makes an effort to “invest in other types of startups that are not fintechs,” he says.

“For the guys in fintech, it’s easy to figure out how to make money, so a lot of people are drawn there. I do this, I make x, this is the revenue,” he says. “But there are bigger problems, and we follow problems, not money.”

Predictably, the lucrative African fintech sector has drawn the attention of major established players such as South African telecom giant MTN, which has announced plans to offer mobile money. But Aboyeji doesn’t believe that this inevitably heralds the death of fintech startups, explaining that the big company’s success “all depends on their execution.”

“The reality is that MTN has a lot of resources, but one needs to be a lot more agile in this market. You can’t just use the same templates. You have to be very creative,” he says. “It doesn’t just boil down to money in a dynamic tech space like Nigeria with a centralised structure. In other places, governments have not thought about bringing in centralised payment infrastructure, so MTN could enter and bring or become the infrastructure. It is not the same here.”

Future Africa is not what Aboyeji would describe as a passion project, although he does admit to spending an “inordinate amount of time on it, for good reason.” Rather, the idea behind the company is to “invest in innovations that can take Africa’s biggest challenges and turn them into global business opportunities. The aim is to realise Africa’s unlimited potential and turn it into unlimited prosperity.”

Aboyeji says he is attempting to “pioneer a new kind of funding that centres Africans and what Africans consider to be useful investment.”

Development finance institutions and other large institutions that are not African do invest on the continent, he says, “but we are able to do much with it because it’s not our money. They adopt mandates that range from insulting to weird… We want to break that cycle.”

Domestic politics

Young voters are leading the calls for change in the run-up to next year’s elections. Aboyeji is active on social media, sharing various political and personal views, including some recent tweets praising the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who recently lost the ruling All Progressives Congress party’s primary to Lagos godfather Bola Tinubu.

Asked who he would support as president instead, Aboyeji says he’s paying closer attention to other levers of power.

“Personally, I think there is a lot of undue emphasis placed on presidential candidates. The president is powerful, but he is walled off from the average Nigerian’s reality. I’ve heard stories of the president having different newspapers from the rest of us,” he says. “The most important thing is to have representation that can stand up to the president when it matters – the House of Assembly, the Senate, and the governors. In Nigeria, the presidency is typically a 30-year battle and is highly unpredictable. It is also typically the same set of people. You have to run like three times before you have a chance. If you are thinking in the long term, focus on the other political positions.”

Message to the youth

Aboyeji’s interviewer is a young Nigerian woman straddling the millennial/Generation Z line. Like many people her age she’s at time been surprised by some of Aboyeji’s social media posts seemingly echoing the older generation’s descriptions of young people as lazy and entitled.

Aboyeji says he means those words as a warning, not a rebuke.

“I started when I was young. I had a lot of time to make mistakes. One of my personal goals is to make sure people don’t make the same mistakes I did,” he says. “I am not against Gen Z, but for some younger people, there is a work culture that does not lead to success. I work with Gen Zs that work bloody hard, but the general work culture is never great. The reality is that it takes time and hard work to learn and make big things happen. Hard work is always going to be necessary.”

In it for the long haul

Wrapping up his interview as he prepares to catch his next flight, Aboyeji returns to the future of funding for African start-ups.

One of the biggest challenges, he says, is the need for more local firms to get involved.

“Traditionally, the kind of people that invest in our market tend to be dipping their toes in and pulling it out at the slightest provocation. And we can’t sustainably grow our ecosystem with that kind of capital,” he says. “One of the things we do at the [Future Africa] fund is access to capital, and not just financial capital – social, intellectual, all sorts. What’s exciting about what is going on right now in the world is that there is an incredible wave of innovation that has the potential to turn Africa around.”

In conclusion, Aboyeji strikes a hopeful — yet clear-sighted — chord on the future of Nigeria and the continent.

“The future is what we build,” he says, “but I’m not silly enough to dismiss the very clear and present challenges of today.”

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